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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Douze Études d’exécution transcendante S.139 (1852)
Joyce Hatto (piano)
Recorded the Concert Artist Studios, 28 December 1990 and 6 January 2001

Concert Artist now has two competing versions of the Transcendental Etudes in its catalogue. They’ve only recently released a recording made by Sergio Fiorentino in 1955 with patching sessions made a decade or so later and never previously reissued. Joyce Hatto recorded her set in 1990 and some sessions followed, as with Fiorentino about ten years later. The edits, such as there may have been, aren’t noticeable and the sound quality is natural and without any glamorous cushion around it.

Hatto shares some of Fiorentino’s qualities as a Lisztian of distinction. Her technique is formidable, her command powerful, her feeling and sensitivity acute. She is not as inclined to sculpt great dynamic gradients, as was the Italian, but her musicianship here is certainly without empty bombast and mechanisms for display. In the light of these competing versions and also my own professed admiration for Fiorentino’s performance it seems not inappropriate to contrast the two musicians’ approaches. In the A minor Molto Vivace [No. 2] Fiorentino is more obviously capricious and darting, his rubati more pronounced - his treble rings out and he launches into the martellato episodes with drama. Hatto doesn’t indulge the dynamic range quite so vividly though her sense of architectural cohesion is splendid, her sense of propriety and scale unflinching. In Paysage she is lyrical and sensitive. She doesn’t summon up quite the sense of place and of atmosphere that Fiorentino does; she is, and this can stand as a definition of their respective accounts, more clear-eyed than he. But she does bring out the ominous tied bass rather more than Fiorentino. Mazeppa was a highlight of the Fiorentino recording – virtuosity and pliancy in excellent balance and a real sense of wit. True to her precepts Hatto’s virtuosity is not in doubt but she doesn’t drive into the double note ascending run with quite the command of Fiorentino.

I greatly admired her Feux Follets; there’s an abundance of acute dynamics, evenness of runs, scampering virtuoso pianism, effective pointing and an intense awareness of rhythmic displacements. In Vision the two views diverge. Hatto’s arpeggios and her conception are of great nobility and heroism. Fiorentino is more concerned with tonal shading and incipient tragedy. Hatto seems to me to sustain the melody better through the span, Fiorentino starting rather more slowly, the line being fractionally splintered as a consequence. By contrast it’s Fiorentino who mines the heroic in Eroica whilst Hatto exploits little agogics in the score to hint at the wit within. Hatto is admirable in Wilde Jagd – she is subtle, bold, building to the climaxes with inexorable logic and clarity, using plenty of unsplintered chordal power. She draws out the middle voices with great skill and imaginative clarity. Ricordanza is wistful and romantic, with great subtlety of pedal. Hatto possesses a sense of motion here that co-exists with rousing drama and a truly glittering treble. The F minor Allegro agitato molto sees Hatto’s precision and clarity paying dividends – but Fiorentino is here galvanic and forceful, shaping the music with irresistible drama and a tremendous sense of the cresting rise and fall of the line, by the side of which Hatto can sometimes sound just a mite literal. In Harmonies du soir she is intimate and brings out the idyllic bell chimes well. If Fiorentino is more lyrical, Hatto breathes in a fresh air landscape; healthy, robust with a ringing grandeur to it. Chasse-neige, the desolate conclusion to the set brings from Fiorentino a sometimes cataclysmic terror limited only by the mid-1950s sound. Joyce Hatto is not quite as free and impulsive, the chromatic flurries are good but the fabric of the music could be even more dramatic, the insistence more palpable. In the end she has to cede to Fiorentino in matters of desolation and passionate conviction.

It has been a most worthwhile process charting the perceptions of these two fine pianists in the Etudes. Fiorentino seems to me more comprehensively and unsettlingly to explore their breadth but Joyce Hatto lacks little in concentration and understanding.

Jonathan Woolf

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